Edward Snowden represents more than another crack in the United States' security culture.

It is disheartening to watch the panic of the Obama administration as it attempts to have it both ways. It has spent the last week shrugging off Edward Snowden as a mere sellout with only middling access to privileged information, all the while moving heaven and earth to retrieve him. This reaction is not useful to any serious narrative. It gives credence to the notion that Snowden is a spy-for-hire, just looking for a safe haven long enough to unload his cargo of mid-level bureaucratic secrets. It presents the United States intelligence apparatus as bumbling and clueless, unable to track down a twentysomething man with more ideals than plans.

Perhaps the worst, though, is that it ignores the possibility that what Edward Snowden is doing is worthwhile. If Obama ever had a desire to get out from under the accusations that stank up the Oval Office when the NDAA was passed, or Guantanamo failed to close at the snap of his fingers, it was here. Let the principled moral actor flee and be at peace. Let him reveal whatever had suddenly pushed him to give up his cushy government job. Let him make his case to the public.

What did he know? We’re told that he knows comparatively little, that he didn’t have access to deeper secrets, that he misunderstood what he was seeing. If that’s the case, why the international manhunt, the mass-media campaign of demonization and de-legitimization?

In the spectrum of possible responses, it seems that the poorest and most useless have been chosen in the matter of Snowden’s conscientious objection. It’s possible that the Obama administration is pursuing all of this for the sake of not appearing to be soft on intelligence leaks in the face of constant Republican objections, but if this is so, the administration is conceding without a fight to some of the least legitimate elements of opposition to his government.

Now, however, we have news that a coalition of allies has been used to block the flight of the Bolivian President’s plane through European airspace, forcing a landing in Austria and searching the aircraft for Snowden. This violation of diplomatic protocol is nothing short of bullying. How would the average American feel, having heard that Air Force One had been forced to land in a foreign nation so that, say, Chinese or Indian security forces could search for a fugitive on board? The condemnation from the United States would be on every channel for the next two months. Yet, because the United States is the big dog on the block, no one dares defy them.

This is not the way to arrange a peaceful future. It does not win us any credibility with the rest of the world. It is an assertion of implicit military force. It is an overt statement of double-standard: We can, so we will. You can’t, so you won’t. It is not the magnanimity that will win us friends in the global struggle against nihilism. It does not contribute to our cosmopolitan society. It does not earn us brownie points to be called in the next time a ‘coalition of the willing’ has to be built.

These currencies are the way that the United States will remain relevant in an increasingly humanistic world. As the next generations arise and the banalities of Kissinger and the Cold War die with their authors, notions of positive liberty and cosmopolitan acceptance are increasingly likely to replace meritocracy and so-called ‘tolerance.’ Treating other nations as second-class citizens will be remembered far longer than the panicked flight of one dissatisfied analyst. How America treats its whistleblowers now, coming as they do from a new generation raised by Nintendo rather than Captain America, will pay dividends in the future, for good or ill, in the memories of those making policy at mid-century.

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